The first thing you note when you meet Khowther is that she speaks really good English. She is clearly educated – ‘Damascus University’ she says when I ask her, ‘and then as a teacher at Technical College.’ Now, here in Akre she runs an art club, Castle Art, which works with children to turn the bare walls of a former Saddam Hussein prison into bright colourful murals.
The project, the brain-child of Lucy from RISE Foundation who now pay Khowther a salary which supports the small amount she receives for teaching at the local school.
Money is everything. ‘How can parents worry about education when they have to worry about how to feed their children?’ she asks. Things have got worse in recent months. ‘When we arrive two years ago WFP gave us food, then vouchers, but now this has been cut. Work is hard to find and when you can it is short term and low paid. So now in some families even children are required to go and find work. Its a struggle to feed the family.’
Khowther is a mother of two small boys, both pre-school. Her husband worked when they first arrived, but a year ago he had an accident and now cannot work in manual labour. He lives in Erbil where wages are higher and work more plentiful and tries to send them money. ‘It is difficult’ she says.
We are sat on the floor of her one room within the converted prison buildings that make the Akre Camp. She shares a corridor with three other families, each with one room and sharing a bathroom and a kitchen space. She has no daylight, and it smells damp. The aircon unit is loud and rattles.
‘It is stressful living here. All we think of is our time back in Syria. We had a good life.’ Stress is a word she uses a lot. I asked her about the children who had been loud and rowdy with us when we arrived ‘They are bored, they are stressed, they play up, it is very hard for them.’ I ask about her children and do they miss home, the older one ‘remembers a little’ the younger one, ‘I carried him here in my arms.’
I ask what the international community can do to help. She struggles for a moment to understand the question, so I ask do they need education, or healthcare, ‘We need jobs and we need food. Everything else is second. We are fortunate to have a place to live, but without money we can't buy food. The WFP has cut aid to $10 a month for only the most in-need families, the rest of us have to find work. I am better than most, but still I struggle, without a job there is no money, with no money there is no food. Until we have these nothing else matters.’
The Castle Art project is her lifeline. With the money she can feed her children and herself, a luxury many do not have. She also brings colour and excitement to the lives of the children here, and it seems she has also found and nurtured talent.
We are pleased to support RISE and the Castle Art Project - to donate please give here